Hyper-mile your house

Amy Musser

If people can get 80 mpg in a car that’s EPA-rated to get 45, then it seems like it should be possible to get better than average performance out of your house.  I’ve been experimenting with this idea for a couple of years and trying things with friends and students (shout-out to my SST 120 class at AB tech!).  I’ve found that your car and your house have a lot of similarities.

I like to summarize things as simply as possible.  In my reading about hyper-miling, it seems to boil down to this:

  • Pay close attention to what you’re doing.
  • Don’t do un-necessary things.
  • Use efficient methods.

All of these principles seem potentially relevant to living in a house.

Paying attention to what you’re doing is probably the hardest thing to talk people into.  Let’s start with this:  is there any area of your life, really, that would not benefit from your choice to live with awareness and active decision-making?  I’ll just go ahead and answer that for you:  no, there isn’t.  Sorry, I didn’t make the rules.  I like laying on the couch in my PJs with a pint of Ben and Jerry’s and the remote in my hand as much as the next person.   The truth is that sometimes acting with awareness actually reduces the amount of work you have to do, so I promise you’ll still have time to channel surf.

Despite the fact that you’re busy and barely keeping on top of cooking dinner, working and cleaning your house,  if you’re going to plug things into electrical outlets you might as well develop some basic awareness about how much power they’re using.  This will motivate you to take 2 seconds and unplug some of them.

Not doing unnecessary things is my favorite category of savings because most of the items on my list require minimal effort.  It’s great to enlist your kids to help with this. Many of them have the benefit of free time, and they’re going to need the planet longer than the rest of us.  There’s also a chance that they may find learning math to be a useful skill.

Hyper-milers do crazy things like pulling through parking spaces to park face-out so that they don’t have to waste gas backing up.  They also avoid carrying around a bunch of stuff in the trunk that makes the car weigh more.  They limit idling by avoiding crowded roads and stoplights.  Presumably they don’t sit in line at the drive in window with the heater on and the window down.

You can apply this waste-avoidance principle in your house by finding and killing “vampire” power.  This is power used by appliances that consume power when they are left on or in “sleep” mode.  Wall chargers (any plug-in cord with a box on it) will also use power even if the device they are intended to charge (like your cell phone) is not plugged into it.  This is pure waste – energy that you are consuming that provides no useful benefit at all to you.

The worst offenders are computers, video gaming systems, and AV equipment.  Most older cable boxes are pretty bad, and I was successful in talking my local cable company into giving me a newer one that is much better.  So, how are you going to know?  For $20 at a home improvement store, you can buy something called a Kill-A-Watt meter.  You plug this device into the wall, and then you plug your appliance into it, and you leave it there for a day to see how much power you’ve used.  This is a great math-related activity for kids to help with.  Once you know what your big users are, put those on a power strip to switch them off or just unplug them.

It would be great if your house had one of these
It would be great if your house had one of these.

Doing things efficiently in your car means driving slower going uphill and coasting down hills, gentle use of the accelerator and brake, and checking that you have optimal tire pressure.  Obviously you can take this to an extreme that would annoy your friends and family, but there’s room to practice these principles in a moderate way that still uses less gas.

In your house, this means knowing what your really big energy users are and being efficient and judicious about your use of them.  Rather than eliminating pure waste, here you are identifying power usage that is out of scale compared to the benefit that you get from it.  Some common examples:

  • Incandescent lighting – you can usually get the same light from a CFL or LED that uses 75% less energy.
  • Lights left on in unoccupied rooms or that are brighter than they need to be
  • Your old cable box or DVR – yes, it records your shows, but how much power does that consume?
  • Running your furnace fan in constant “on” instead of “auto”.  It filters your air more, but do you need that?
  • Pumps use a ton of energy.  If it’s your well pump, you need it.  If it’s a landscape water feature, how many hundred dollars a year is that worth to you?
  • Extra refrigerator/freezer/kegerator.  Could you clean out your main refrigerator and get rid of the ancient one in your garage?
  • Outdoor lighting – could it be on a motion sensor?  Photo sensor?  I’m amazed how many lights in my neighborhood are on all day and all night.  You probably use it about 10 minutes a week to walk from your house to your car.
  • TV in the background – big TVs use as much energy as a refrigerator.  Which is fine if you’re actually watching it.  I’ve experimented – dogs could care less about it when you’re not at home.

After that, there are large and useful, but sometimes avoidable loads.  Your clothes dryer is the most obvious.  On a sunny day, a clothesline is surprisingly easy to use.  Not doing extensive cooking when it’s really hot outside is another.  Bring on the no-bake cookies!  High flow shower heads might feel good, but we’re not living in that world anymore.  If I can rinse MY hair in 1.5 gallons per minute, you can do it too.  The most obvious in this category is lowering your thermostat setting.  But since I hate wearing socks, I won’t nag you about that one.

So, give energy efficiency 2 minutes of thought each day while you reach down to unplug stuff.  Consider spending half an hour and less than $100 at the home improvement store on light bulbs, a showerhead, and power strips.  Give your kids a vampire-hunting project.  Make some little tweaks to your lifestyle.  It’s very possible that you could save 20% on your electric bills with minimal effort.

A detailed breakdown of my home's energy use - always room for improvement!
A detailed breakdown of my home’s energy use – always room for improvement!

Copyright 2013 Amy Musser